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Globs of Paint 

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Wesley Kimler

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through August 27

Kain Tapper: Tombs in Wood

at Perimeter Gallery, through August 29

There's a church in Venice, the Frari, that contains two Titian altarpieces. One painting is especially sublime--a famous Assumption in which Mary rises dramatically, almost subsumed by the pale light of yellow clouds. Farther back in the church, a 19th-century neoclassical monument to Titian includes stone reliefs of several of his paintings, including the airy Assumption, which can also be glimpsed in the distance. Seeing the two together reveals the absurdity of making a stone relief of this painted depiction of transcendence: what makes the painting great, the interaction between Mary's implied movement and the sky's delicate light and colors, is completely lost in stone. The relief gives only the outlines of the picture: weighty, static, dead, it is the utter opposite of Titian's moving testament to his faith.

Great works are more than what they seem to be; bad ones seem weighed down by their materials, stuck in them. Wesley Kimler's eight new abstract paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art mimic many of the gestures of earlier abstract paintings without any of their beauty. But seeing Kimler's paintings--limited to their own mannerisms, never achieving more than the most obvious effects--helped deepen my appreciation of the great abstract painters that came before him.

Gestural abstract painters most often give their pictures coherence in one of two ways. The vast network of lines in Pollock's drip paintings is ultimately rhythmic--perhaps these are the unpredictable, improvisational rhythms of jazz, but they're musical nonetheless. De Kooning takes the other tack: his canvases are remarkable for their heterogeneity, including several different modes of picture making within the same work. But the parts interact with a visionary intensity, as if the picture were struggling to make opposites cohere--and succeeding. Kimler appears to owe a debt to both approaches, but doesn't succeed with either. Surgeon Head recalls de Kooning's evocation of figures in his nearly abstract paintings: a few thickly painted lines here suggest the outlines of a head. The free lines are balanced by more geometrical colored rectangles; streaks and splotches appear throughout, as well as color variations within the rectangles. But none of the parts work together, and nothing leads anywhere; the lines and colors seem artificially spliced together.

Abstract expressionists of the 50s like Pollock and de Kooning have recently come under criticism for their hard-drinking, assertive characters, said to signal an outdated macho ideal of masculinity. One can choose to reject these implied values, criticizing the way these painters seize the territory of their often huge canvases, making every inch reflect their personalities--though I would say, reflect their inner vision. But the complex, controlled way the elements of their compositions interact raises swagger to music, making plain the ethos of the world-reshaping artist. At 108 by 120 inches, Kimler's Where I'm Calling From is large, as are most of the works in this show, but it seems all swagger. He combines two panels of what were originally two separate pictures, leaving a dividing line down the center, then can't decide between rhythmic unity and heterogeneity: some lines continue across the divide, but at other points along the line colors and shapes are not continuous. Throughout each panel thick lines cross large areas but then peter out, connecting with nothing else. Swaths of thick, muddy color achieve nothing but a sense of heaviness. These parts are never made to sing together, nor do they thoroughly differentiate themselves from one another. Once the viewer has looked at everything that's physically there, nothing else happens.

Kimler, we learn from Lynne Warren's helpful catalog essay, was a "sought after painter" in Chicago in the 80s who has recently returned after a sojourn in Los Angeles. "His sheer bravura," she writes, "in his personal life, in his painting...could sometimes be more convincing than the response one had standing before one of his works." Warren argues that Kimler has entered a more "reflective" period, that in his new works he's matured. Viewers should decide this matter for themselves, but all I see is skillfully applied globs of paint.

There are many different kinds of brushwork in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but prominent among them are solid rectangles of color, recalling Hans Hofmann's colored squares within fields of more diverse multicolored forms. But Hofmann keeps his solid colors empty, allowing pure pigment its own integrity within his expressionistic compositions, creating a dramatic contrast. Kimler can't resist filling his rectangles with more shapes, creating a clutter that reminded me of finger paintings by children who don't know when to quit. Kimler does leave one solid green rectangle at the lower right mostly empty, and I got more pleasure out of that green field than any other part of the image. When you prefer looking at paint alone to the shapes the artist creates, you know he's detracting from, not adding to, the possibilities of seeing.

If Kimler's images are unpleasantly claustrophobic and cluttered, a bit like someone's messy bedroom, they're also attempts to make paintings that cohere in a traditional way, through the planned interaction of forms. Many of Kain Tapper's 28 recent sculptures at Perimeter--a show that also includes nine drawings --look at first like junk wood left out in the rain too long. Yet I liked them for the way they deny the image-oriented materiality Kimler so strongly asserts. Elusive and poetic, they're strong partly because they're so self-effacing. The finest are three of the eight called Tomb, inspired in part by Tapper's visits to ancient Etruscan tombs. His works take the form of rectangular polyhedrons rising at a slight angle more than seven feet high. A bit taller and thicker than the human body, they initially if somewhat deceptively seem imposing presences.

Each face of these towerlike boxes is alive with splotches of cream, tan, pink, and brown; cracks in the wood; and a dense network of dents, abrasions, and discolorations. Working with a variety of tools and with his hands, Tapper has gouged or cut away parts of the wood and applied and removed pigments. Clearly the surfaces have been intensely worked on--in fact at least one has been modified after the catalog photograph was taken. Comparison reveals that Tapper continually adds and removes material, filling in some cracks and opening new ones.

Like Kimler's paintings, the resulting surfaces bear a superficial resemblance to certain abstract expressionist images, but Tapper gives us none of these artists' complex, even aggressive rhythmic patterns. However, his surfaces are marginally unified by a gentle repetition, with marks often placed nearly parallel to one another, in patterns akin to nature's--the patterns of tree bark, weathered rocks, lichen.

At first Tapper's works were merely interesting to look at, but then the cracks between the planks began to command as much attention as the layers of pigment. I also noticed that it's often hard to tell which parts are simply accretions of several layers and which have also been abraded. Material presence, in the form of wood and pigment, is presented as the equal of material absence--cracks, dents, abrasions. Doubly modest, the artist avoids the organizational schemes of traditional abstract art, in which one feels every mark is the product of the artist's mind, while suggesting natural erosion and decay. I found the balance between created forms and suggestions of natural processes immensely moving.

Juhani Pallasmaa's catalog essay compares Tapper to Monet, a painter he admires: both create densely worked surfaces that suggest organic processes. But if Monet's now-familiar imagery and pleasantly coordinated colors are easy to enjoy, Tapper's works are not. Monet's can be seen at a glance, while as Peter Schjeldahl suggests in another catalog essay, Tapper's make the most sense viewed from afar, as architecture, or from very close up. His surfaces offer no representational images, only signs of the artist's attacks. And his work points in two directions at once: each mark could be something the artist added or an indication of something he's taken away. Monet's works are sure of their own nature and of the beauties of the world they depict; their layers of paint build into a convincing rendering of natural forms. Tapper's works open up doubt--everything we see feels as if it's in danger of being rubbed out, consumed, destroyed. Like all living things, each fragment of each work sits on the knife edge between existence and oblivion.

Some of Tapper's works are freestanding sculptures; most hang on the wall like paintings. But in all of them, convex and concave relief effects evoke the decay that inevitably consumes all matter. Somewhat cleaner and more elegant than most of the other works, however, are five white wall pieces titled Relief. At the center of each surface is a gently curved horizontal line that could be the ridge of a hill or the horizon. But each curve is actually created out of built-up paint, tiny grooves abraded down to the wood, or both; this landscape itself fuses matter and its absence.

Born in central Finland in 1930, Tapper (who now lives in Helsinki) grew up on a farm. One grandfather was a carpenter, the other a skilled tailor; Tapper's mother made paintings and carvings, and his father was a farmer and craftsman who built rafts. Four brothers slept in a single bed; brother Harri remembers Kain using a fingernail and a knife to carve shapes in the many layers of paint on the bed's high side. A key childhood incident seems to have been the death of a favorite horse; Kain later retrieved its skull from its forest grave, and eventually based many of his works on it. In fact Tapper's drawings in this show are all of heads, all a bit skull-like. One can imagine how a child's impression of a skull--its strongly white surface frighteningly interrupted by dramatic holes--could be a key to the sculptures. A skull combines the suggestion of a living being with a vivid reminder, via absence, of the decay that follows death.

But death, like all natural processes, can never be reduced to a single image, and Tapper's works never resolve into self-enclosed, easily grasped pictures. Some suggest maps--images made not to please but to invoke the land they limn. In one of two large wall pieces called Black Relief, many areas that seem built up from layers of pigment resemble hills on a relief map. Tilted black rectangles within the larger rectangle of the work suggest a grid that's a bit askew. Up close, the work is a forest of marks and abrasions; a few holes in the wood allow one to peer a bit beneath its surface. The black suggests that the wood has been burnt--nothing about this piece is pretty. But the longer I looked at it, the more it evoked: the physical acts that created it, the fire that perhaps burned the wood, organic decay, a volcanic landscape built up in some places, obliterated in others. Even in his rectangles Tapper escapes the traditional effect of the rectangular image: this is not a window on nature but a vision of nature's order and chaos, growth and disintegration.

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